Archives for posts with tag: Bach

GOldIt seemed particularly appropriate to go to the Wigmore Hall on Friday May 9th for a late night concert starting at 10pm to hear Joanna MacGregor play The Goldberg Variations – given the (probably mythical) back story of Bach composing the variations as an aid to the insomnia of Count Kaiserling, as first related by Forkel. Indeed the couple next to us slept throughout the entire performance, despite our position right at the front of the hall, to the left of the piano. I’d read Tovey’s famous extended essay on the Variations in the days before the concert, and it helped especially to bear in mind some of his arguments – for instance the organization and central importance of the canons, which occur at every third variation and gradually widen out from the first unison canon to the second, third, fourth interval (etc) right up to the octave. Tovey points out how Bach particularly emphasizes the characteristics of each interval in the individual treatment of each of the canons – and says that, despite their strict formality, they form the emotional heart of the work. Following the progress of these canons as the intervals become wider, an entirely audible process, is a great way of keeping your bearings during a performance.

Tovey also discusses the underlying dance forms that are used within the variations, and it’s this aspect that MacGregor is particularly notable for. Many of us grew up listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording, which while quirky (to say the least) articulates the counterpoint with crystal clarity. MacGregor is at her strongest when bringing out the dance aspects of movements, with their unpredictable accents and phrases flowing freely across the bar lines. A good example is the brief but lively variation number four, in fast 3/8 time and with an emphasis on clipped quaver rhythms. It’s possibly an example of the baroque passepied dance (a form Bach uses elsewhere, such as in the first orchestral suite). For comparison, Gould’s version sounds plodding, and as it omits all the repeats is only 29 seconds long, too brief to make its impact.

From our position at the front left hand side we also had a good view of the keyboard, and could see MacGregor expertly negotiate the intricate and virtuosic cross-hand passages that result from some of the variations being written for instruments with two separate keyboard manuals. I’ve always loved the atmosphere of the Wigmore Hall, and recommend the rest of the series of late concerts, including particularly interesting programmes from  New York Polyphony (June 27th) and Anne Sofie von Otter with Steven Isserlis and Bengt Forsberg (July 4th). 


Fifty Modern Classics I saw a live performance of Sinfonia by the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop at the Royal Festival Hall last Friday, part of the Rest Is Noise Festival, on this occasion focusing on music from the 1960s. It featured vocals from the Swingle Singers, for which the piece was originally written. The singers are of course from a new generation, but the group has continued without a break since it was formed in 1962, with the remaining members holding auditions for replacements every time an individual member leaves.

The third movement of Sinfonia (according to the Modern World website, from which the graphic above also comes) is “possibly the most exhilarating twelve minutes that modern music has to offer.” I’d certainly agree with that, but there is the question as to how much of that is down to Berio himself and how much is inherited from his sources – particularly Mahler’s scherzo from the second “Resurrection” Symphony – that holds the movement together. The piece is chock full of quotations (ranging from Bach to Beethoven to Ravel, Richard Strauss and Boulez), but Mahler provides the narrative thread – a “river of sound” – that is sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, and which is easily diverted by the introduction of other material. Alex Ross, in the book that inspired the festival, points out that the use of devices such as collage, pastiche and quotation gave contemporary European composers the opportunity “to commandeer tonal music without committing the sin of writing tonal music, as such.”

I agree that Mahler’s material is very central to the piece – even more so when we realize that the scherzo itself is a re-working of earlier material, a song from the cycle Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song recounts how St Anthony of Padua, discouraged by an empty church, preaches his sermon to the fish. They pay rapt attention (as in the original retelling of the miracle). However, the poem goes on to point out that, while the sermon has pleased the fish, the words themselves make no difference and they carry on exactly as before – the crabs still walk backwards, the pikes continues thieving, the carps remain greedy etc. We don’t hear any of St Anthony’s words directly, instead they are portrayed musically in a series of downward sequences, like bubbles descending into the water past the uncomprehending creatures and dissipating. Berio provides a flood of words on top of his river of music, some of them original, some from Samuel Beckett’s 1957 novel The Unnamable, but all of them striving to comprehend a “meaning” that may not exist. The text is humorous and self-referential as well as sometimes bleak, and like the music, it is woven into the texture as a whole so that the fragments are sometimes only partially audible.

Berio takes maximum advantage of the Mahler scherzo by bringing it to the surface of his texture at its most heightened moments, such as the plaintive slow descending passage for brass over strings towards the middle. And he introduces other very recognizable quotes – from Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, for instance, or his ingenious combination of Strauss and Ravel waltzes – to comment ironically on the text. But it’s the pure sound of the Swingle Singers’ vocals, who contribute to the musical material as well as narrating the text, which really transforms the original Mahler material into something quite different. Berio clearly loved this type of vocal sound, as he used it elsewhere in various other works such as A-Ronne (1974) and the classic 1958 electronic piece Thema (Omaggio a Joyce).

Late Masterpieces
The unearthly sound of the opening fugue from Beethoven’s C# minor quartet is partly due to the key (not a resonant one for strings), partly due to the chromatic element in the theme (leading to predominantly dissonant harmony), and partly due to the rhythmic interplay of the four voices, which, after the strict fugal exposition of the first 16 bars, seem most intent on getting into step with each other and staying there. For this is a very free fugue (just as many of Bach’s fugues are free), where the full length subject returns only rarely throughout the movement, letting the intervening episodes carry the main argument. As soon as bar 20, the theme appears to want to return, with the first violin starting to introduce it in the high register three times – but each time only reaching the first three notes. That leads to the first real moment of calm, a strikingly homophonic passage beginning at the end of bar 27 and continuing on for a further six bars of crotchet movement with coordinated phrases. At bar 35 the cello does manage to play a version of the theme, but it’s not answered adequately in the other voices, other than in small fragments.

We head into a crescendo and a change of key (at letter B, bar 54), and here the full subject does appear, though only in diminished form. The rhythmic motion speeds up into quavers at the same point, but the voices once again forgo the chance of flowing rhythmic counterpoint and get back in step with each other for a further nine bars. Again the first violin makes a strong attempt to voice the subject, but this soon drops back into an eerie, canonical passage for the two violins alone, followed by an answering duo from the viola and cello. Another crescendo finally leads to the full theme’s return at bar 92, this time through multiple stretto entries, including a spacious augmented (half speed) version in the cello. This proves to be the climax of the movement, and from here the momentum collapses as the home key returns in stark octaves – before the music shifts up a semitone to move straight into the second, mellower movement, the D major tonality (a much more sympathetic key for strings) like a shaft of sunlight.

Beethoven’s model for this fugue was clearly Bach – there are thematic echoes with the C# minor fugue in the first book of the Well Tempered Clavier as well as with the second Kyrie from the Mass in B Minor. But there’s also some evidence that Beethoven had recently studied some early Renaissance works by Josquin, and the homophonic style may have been partly influenced by that. However, a listener unfamiliar with the piece would be more likely to guess that it was written more recently – Bartok and Shostakovich are sometimes not many steps away from this music.

shostShostakovich’s set of 24 Preludes and Fugues, written between October 1950 and March 1951, may have been directly inspired by Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier but they aren’t in any sense neo-classical pastiches. Shostakovich has his own concerns and his own musical language, and these aren’t compromised even when he submits to the strict procedures of the fugue. For instance, Fugue No 1 uses only the white notes, while Fugue No 15 has a theme consisting of eleven of the twelve tones in an octave, with the twelfth only introduced at the very end of the fugue – apparently a commentary on serial music, as by the end of the piece tonic/dominant harmony is finally established. One of my favorites is the Ab Major Fugue (No 17) in four voices, with its 5/4 time signature, insistent rhythmic patterns and just about every fugal trick you can think of played out during its course – most obviously the augmented subject hammered-out in the left hand towards the end. The critic and composer Wilfrid Mellers, in his essay for Keith Jarrett’s recording on ECM, says the cycle “need fear no comparison with its model.”